Last term, WiCS had the incredible privilege of meeting Rasheeda Yehuza, a software engineer and computer scientist who changes the way people engage with technology in Ghana. In this interview, Rasheeda shares her journey in computer science, her passion for engaging girls in STEM, and her thoughts on Ghana's emerging tech scene.
Rasheeda currently works at VOTO Mobile, a mobile phone notification and survey platform that bridges communication gaps between lifesaving services and people in the most vulnerable communities. She recently worked on a maternal health project in Northern Ghana, where there are high mortality rates and no access to adequate health care resources.
For this project, VOTO Mobile partnered with Savana Signatures, an organization whose mission is to equip women and other vulnerable groups with ICT (information and communication technologies) skills. The project takes advantage of the fact that almost everyone in Ghana has a feature phone. Pregnant women and their families receive medical advice by responding to questions by voice or keypad. From India to Brazil, the project is saving lives all over the world.
Back in Ghana, Rasheeda is passionate about changing the perception of STEM for women. All around the world, the low representation of women in STEM is alarming, and even more in Africa.
Rasheeda was chosen this year to be a fellow at the Kumvana Program of Engineers Without Borders Canada. As part of her fellowship, she toured Canadian tech companies and innovation labs for a month. She was surprised to learn that getting women involved in STEM is still a huge problem in North America.
"When I was growing up, I was introduced to a computer at the age of 8, which is huge in Ghana," she recounts.
"It takes a long time for technology from North America to come down to Ghana. The first time I saw a computer, I was immediately fascinated."
As an early adopter of technology, Rasheeda felt a cultural disconnect from the Internet.
"In Ghana, no one built websites. Most websites are American and because of that you develop a notion that the Internet, and ultimately technology, is American."
Despite having access to technology at a young age, Rasheeda took many years to act towards her passion for it.
"In high school, my friends noticed I had an interest in computers. But at home, my parents were encouraging me to be a doctor. Deep down, I knew I was meant to do something with technology."
Rasheeda took a leap of faith in her final year of high school and enrolled in her first computer science course.
"I went home after school and told my parents that I wanted to study computer science. No one in my community knew what a computer scientist was. It was hard to get support, especially because there were no women in the field to look up to in Ghana."
In university, there were 10 women in her class of a hundred and only 4 of them moved on to graduate studies. First year was difficult for Rasheeda, she felt like she was behind her peers because she had never programmed before.
"The first programming course I took taught C++. I remember struggling with writing a program to find prime numbers," she recalls.
"Unlike today, there were very few websites back then that could help beginners with programming. People struggled on their own and many of her classmates, not just women, dropped out."
Back in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg was writing the first lines of code for Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. When Facebook reached Ghana, Mark's story became an inspiration to Rasheeda.
"If he could start something so big in his dorm room, then I could do so as well," she explains.
"Of course, he had a lot more resources!" she observes.
Years before Twitter exploded, she built a similar social network called Snapper.
"If I had more confidence, perhaps my life would have been very different," she laughs.
Rasheeda found that confidence in her final undergraduate year. She met her dear friend and future co-founder Regina Agyare, a prominent tech guru in Ghana. Regina is the founder of Soronko Solutions, a software development company that focuses on social enterprise. Her story has been featured in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
"The first thought I had when I met her was, 'Wow a woman in computer science that is older than me!' It was amazing and it was the best feeling I had in a long time."
As a result of this chance encounter, the two embarked together on a new project called Tech Needs Girls. The first step for them was to raise awareness of computer science by creating a community for women, young and old, to support one another. In June 2013, they held their first workshop. Although they succeeded in raising awareness of the women in STEM problem, Rasheeda felt like the curriculum was a complete failure.
"We introduced the kids to Java, which is the worst thing you can do to anyone. Setting up the 'Hello World' program is easy, but we couldn't teach them anything else effectively," she explains.
"We took a step back a built an entirely new curriculum. In our next iteration, we started with HTML, which was also a huge mistake."
After answering the hard question "What do you want to accomplish?", Rasheeda and Regina figured out that they wanted ultimately to build an interest in STEM, not just computer science. They revamped their curriculum to focus on teaching computational thinking and writing algorithms.
"If you love to cook, you can write an algorithm to help you create a meal. Algorithms can be used anywhere, not just in computer science"
Once the girls were able to grasp the problem-solving process, HTML and Scratch (a drag-and-drop programming language) were used to implement solutions to the problems.
"We didn't have to explain much to the girls, even though many of them had never used a computer until they started attending our workshops. It was an emotional moment when I realized they knew what logic meant and what it was like to build processes and algorithms. Their confidence skyrocketed."
Tech Needs Girls would later partner with Achievers Ghana, a club started by a 12-year-old girl named Amina to encourage girls to succeed. Both these organizations work towards the fact that a girl succeeding can bring about positive social change in her community.
"It's important to invite successful women from the communities these girls are from. When girls see women that represent their background, they feel more motivated to take control of their lives. My goal is to teach girls that your profession is not just a tool for income, but also a tool for change."
Change means a lot of things to Rasheeda. Beyond the tech scene in Ghana, she is passionate about encouraging young people to explore their social responsibility. She is involved in Ghana Think Tank, a think-tank that seeks to work closely with communities to solve socio-economic problems.
"Culture is incredibly influential in Ghana. It influences how people think, how they do things, and how they treat other people. There are over 100 tribes, each with their own culture, religion, and language."
Across these tribes, the treatment and perception of women needs a significant overhaul. In some communities, it's still considered taboo for men to be in the kitchen. Women are still limited to stereotypical, child-rearing roles.
"If I weren't in computer science, I would be a professional football player. At an early age, I was discouraged by my neighbourhood to play. In Ghana, parents don't raise their child alone—the community raises them."
Therefore, fixing the diversity problem in tech requires educating the community.
"Parents and teachers discriminate unconsciously all the time. Boys are favoured when it comes to teaching STEM. We need to change that."
Rasheeda's strong determination and activism has had its fair share of skeptics and naysayers.
"I've had people question why I am doing so much to empower girls, as if my goal is to make women more superior than men. I used to take the negativity personally, but now I ignore the people who don't have the courage to share their thoughts to my face. What motivates me is the work I love to do."
Thanks to Tech Needs Girls, organizations have popped up across Africa to promote and support women in STEM. Rasheeda's ultimate goal for Tech Needs Girls is to push the curriculum into mainstream Ghanaian education. She wants to put Ghana and ultimately Africa on the map for tech, and break down negative stereotypes from the rest of the world.
Follow Rasheeda at rasheedayehuza.com!
Get to Know is a series of interviews with women in computing at the University of Waterloo. They showcase women in our community with inspiring stories. If you're interested in sharing your story or nominating someone else, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Get to Know".